In “The Rum Diary,” a suavely scruffy American novelist (Johnny Depp) takes a cub reporting gig at a shabby newspaper in 1960 Puerto Rico, where he contends with various kooky colleagues (Michael Rispoli, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi), a smug and greedy land developer (Aaron Eckhart), a luscious love interest (Amber Heard), and several angry locals. Also: he drinks.
The newspaper, unsurprisingly corrupt, happens to be on the brink of ruin. The luscious love interest, surprisingly pure, happens to be involved with the smug and greedy land developer. The colleagues get kookier, the locals get angrier, and our man gets along as best he can, whooping and typing it up. Just about everybody speaks in the eruditely debauched voice of Hunter S. Thompson, from whose novel writer-director Bruce Robinson’s frolicsome film derives, but that chorus effect also makes for agreeably easy listening. It’s less a flaw than a feat: Robinson has said his script used only two lines of Thompson’s actual dialogue from the novel.
This is basically “The Hangover” for a more self-consciously bookish crowd: stylish, shallow, calculatedly excessive, not hard to like. Depp has been doing the dashing man-boy for his whole career, of course, and there is a sense for better and worse that he deserves this. (Reportedly he took on producing duties here but didn’t pay himself for acting.) After starring in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and serving as the in-house excerpt reciter for the documentary “Gonzo,” Depp’s Thompson-proxy credentials are by now well established. “The Rum Diary” does raise a vague concern about how many more of these pet projects he or we can take, but then it raises a figurative shot glass, with a magnanimous toast to anyone who’d bother getting uptight about all that.
Depp’s castmates take very seriously the apparent mandate to enjoy themselves. Rispoli in particular, as a game but grizzled mentor, is great fun to be around. Ribisi does the sort of unwashed, quote-marks crazy act that Brad Pitt used to do when he was anxious to register as anything other than just good looking, but it’s impossible to begrudge. After a while, with its self-delighted mania and adolescent mischief, the whole thing starts feeling like a handsomely mounted college stage production. Even at its most foul-mouthed and faux-cynical, it’s all rather chaste and sincere. Even when incoherent and mediocre, it’s at least sort of touching.
Robinson, who is also the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “The Killing Fields” and the maker of the British cult-phenomenal comedy “Whithnail and I,” makes narrative degeneration seem like an aesthetic choice. He straddles the line between period piece and anachronism at least nimbly enough to never seem stuffy on either front. What that dash of Thompson’s famously eloquent Nixon hatred lacks in currency, for instance, it makes up for in hilarity.
Entertainment for its own sake doesn’t exactly radiate political seriousness, but does it need to? By the time Depp’s sitting at his typewriter promising us that he’ll “put the bastards of the world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart,” it’s hard to know what he’s even talking about, or to feel anything other than fondly, slightly embarassed for him. But after all, it is a diary.